Musings – Where Are The Destination Restaurants of North America?

Three stars reward exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients. Worth a special journey. – the Michelin Guide

Restaurants don’t need to be difficult to get to to be “worth a special journey” and deserve three stars from Michelin, but it seems to me that those restaurants that require a bit more effort on the part of the diner are often the most rewarding. elBulli was a prime example of this. Not only was it nearly impossible to garner a reservation, it was a notoriously long and difficult journey, especially over the last few miles. For me, at least, my meals at elBulli have so far been the most magical and memorable of my life. The setting was certainly a component of that, but not the whole ball of wax. It never is. The restaurant itself must stand out of its own accord. Tickets and 41˚ in Barcelona hold much of the same sense of magic as elBulli, albeit without the extra-special sense of place that put elBulli over the top. Yet, for all its magic and mystique, the one thing that elBulli lacked that could have made the experience even more extraordinary (if that was even possible) would have been a small hotel on site commensurate with the experience.¹ For elBulli, the hotel, as extra-special as it would have been, obviously wasn’t necessary in the end. There were sufficient rooms in nearby Roses and one could even camp in Cala Montjoi if one were son inclined.

It may not have been essential for elBulli, but the tradition of restaurants with their own small hotels is a venerable one in Europe and one that makes traveling and dining there so much more special. I just recently returned from a trip through The Netherlands, Belgium and northern France, visiting four multi-starred restaurants, each associated with a small hotel of its own.

The luxury of De Librije and its hotel in Zwolle made me melt. Both the food and the surroundings fully lived up to its three Michelin stars for the restaurant as well as a five star hotel. The restaurant and the hotel are not in the same building nor even adjacent to each other (the hotel houses a second, newer restaurant from Jonnie Boer called Zusje has already won two Michelin stars of its own), but they are within an atmospheric, lovely short walk of each other.

In de Wulf in southern Belgium has its own small hotel. It is so small though, that it can’t house all the people who might dine there on a given evening. As a result, we moved along to our next destination about an hour and a half away in northern France – La Grenouillere, where we spent two well-slept nights and had a fabulous dinner. There is definitely something extra special about having such a dinner, rolling into one’s room and waking up the next day to a lovely country breakfast to complete the experience.

L’Air du Temps recently relocated to an amazing new space. The old space had a small inn and the new space promises an exceptional hotel to go with it. While it would have been sweet to just stay right there, we got lucky with a one room B&B (La Chambre d’à Côté) that proved to be one of the nicest stays and the best value lodging of our entire trip.

Certainly, throughout the world there are large hotels that support excellent, luxury restaurants to support the hotel’s brand. This is no slight to either the hotels or the restaurants, but the overall feel is different, especially in more urban environments. What is different about the places I refer to here is that these are restaurants that are primary destinations in and of themselves. They exist in generally out of the way or off the beaten path locations and offer the typically necessary benefit to their patrons of lodging to go along with their raison d’etre – the food. These are truly destination restaurants. If it were not for these restaurants, the diner would not likely find themselves traveling to the location. That isn’t to say that the location is not otherwise of interest (they typically are for various reasons), but the food remains the primary draw.

Holland, Belgium and northern France are not the only places in Europe where this special kind of hospitality can be found. Michel Bras is well known as a destination restaurant with lodging to match its dining. From personal experience, The Hotel Ferrero in the province of Valencia in Spain is a wonderful hotel, whose primary draw for the food-obsessed is the fabulous Restaurante Paco Morales and Oaxen Krog,  situated on a small island in Sweden, was the consummate destination restaurant with a small luxury yacht acting as guest lodging. The yacht and the chef and his wife (Magnus Ek and Agneta Green)  have since moved to Stockholm where they are in the process of reinventing their concept.

Germany is a category unto itself with a whole series of luxury hotels supporting luxury restaurants as culinary destinations. From Victor’s Gourmet Restaurant at Schloss Berg to Vendôme at Schloss Bensberg to Schwarzwald Stube in the multi-restaurant Black Forest resort of Traube Tonbach in the village of Baiersbronn, gourmet dining is not approached as an afterthought, but as a specific end in itself. The Black Forest has built a reputation as a dining mecca, with not just one three star restaurant, but two in Baiersbronn alone.

What about North America, which has grown up around the automobile? There are certainly plenty of small inns with restaurants, many of them very good, but with an informal survey of knowledgable diners via facebook and Twitter, it appears that there are very few North American restaurants built in the model of those European ones mentioned above that are destinations worthy of a special trip from afar just for the food. Some, like Blackberry Farm in Tennessee and The Greenbriar in West Virginia are large multi-faceted resorts similar to some of those in the German Black Forest that weigh heavily the importance of a top notch fine dining program. Indeed, Richard Rosendale, the highly skilled and creative chef who was the most recent candidate from the USA in the Bocuse d’Or, is the Executive Chef of The Greenbrier.

Many destination restaurants in the US and throughout North America do not have their own lodging, thereby requiring the use of lodging in the vicinity. This does not fully fit the European model I came to truly admire. This is true for places like The French Laundry, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Manresa and a number of other special restaurants designed to attract diners from afar. This, of course, does not reduce the stature of these restaurants in any way culinarily, but it alters the experience somewhat in a romantic sense. How significantly, depends upon each individual situation as well as the situation of the specific diners. Typically, restaurants like these have a number of external lodging alternatives located within reasonable distances.

The American South is one area that does have a strong tradition of tying lodging and dining together. Town House, the now defunct restaurant in Chilhowie, Virginia, operated by Chef John Shields and his wife, Karen Urie Shields, was the very definition of  a restaurant requiring and worthy of a special journey. It did offer a couple of rooms for a few lucky diners to fully enjoy the restaurant’s hospitality. Alas, it is no more.

The Inn at Little Washington in central Virginia has been considered a top restaurant for at least as long as The French Laundry and has lodging too, but for some reason it does not seem to come up in conversation when considering the top restaurants in the United States as much as it used to. Regardless of that, it remains a classic example of the European model in the US.

Virginia is also home to at least two more high quality restaurants that are currently continuing this tradition – The Clifton Inn with the talented chef Tucker Yoder outside of Charlottesville and The Ashby Inn located a bit closer to D.C. under the highly regarded chef Tarver King. A bit further north in central Pennsylvania, The Sheppard Mansion with chef Andrew Little makes a worthy dining destination with a very comfortable stay in a wonderful old residence.

Canada has at least two places that  according to my Social Media consultants fit the bill to a significant degree. Eigensinn Farm was at one time considered one of the best restaurants in North America and requires a special, out-of-the-way trip to get there (unless one happens to live in Singhampton, Ontario). While few still consider it to be in that stratosphere, it still seems to be a worthy destination restaurant. Langdon Hall, in Ontario, like Eigensinn, is according to Renée Suen,  ”the most talked about non-urban (restaurant) in Canada.” Unlike Eigensinn though, Langdon Hall has lodging, which makes it suitable for full inclusion into this discussion. The other Canadian restaurant with lodging that was mentioned by a few people as a worthy destination was Sooke Harbour House on an island near Vancouver, British Columbia.

California is home to a few dining/lodging combinations of particular note. The restaurant Aubergine under Chef Justin Cogley at L’Auberge in Carmel has been garnering significant attention from the cognoscenti, but the restaurant that probably has achieved the greatest acclaim today as a culinary destination with superlative lodging lies a bit further north. The Restaurant at Meadowood under Chef Christopher Kostow is a three Michelin star restaurant in California’s Napa Valley with its own luxury lodging. While it may be argued that the restaurant is there to support the resort and not vice versa, its reputation has grown to the point that the restaurant has become the main star of the complex. While Kostow’s cuisine speaks for itself, its status as a culinary destination peaks each December with its Twelve Days of Christmas² culinary program. This has probably not been better documented than it was this past December by Bonjwing Lee, the Ulterior Epicure.

Washington State is another state with at least a few true destination restaurants. The Herbfarm originated under Chef Ron Zimmerman with its kitchen now helmed by Chef Chris Weber has been amongst the country’s most respected restaurants for some time.

Rene Redzepi’s tweet above referred to Willows Inn under Chef Blaine Wetzel. As wonderful as Meadowood, The Herb Farm  and the other restaurants mentioned here may be, this was the only restaurant that was unanimously mentioned as thoroughly fitting the bill for my definition of a European model destination restaurant supported by fine lodging. My own appetite was thoroughly whetted by this blog post from ChuckEats³ but as yet, I have not been able to personally visit. Like with all of the restaurants I’ve mentioned in this post, I very much want to.

I started to think about this question after returning from my recent trip to Europe, where in a highly concentrated geographic area, the quality and frequency of true destination restaurants with their own lodging was stupefying. It was easy to make a special trip driving from one special place to the next, all the while enjoying spectacular country side and staying close to the land and the sea. There is a real advantage and a considerable pleasure in not having to worry about traveling after a big meal, let alone worrying about the potential effects of alcohol or avoiding it entirely simply out of necessity.

Clearly, outside of a few specific parts of the continent such as central Virginia, Appalachia and the Pacific Northwest, it is much more difficult to accomplish such a trip in North America. It is not clear to me why that should be the case. Perhaps, it is that an American fascination with fine dining is a relatively new phenomenon. There have always been guest lodges with restaurants, but the idea of the restaurant being the primary attraction in an out of the way place never made economic sense here before and still may not make economic sense for most given the expense involved in creating a truly worthy restaurant and the difficulty attracting clients from afar. Even Town House, as spectacular a restaurant as it was (it had become my favorite in the country), had difficulty filling its dining room in its beautiful location remote from any major urban area or significant airport. Places like Blackberry Farm and The GreenBrier and even Meadowood and L’Auberge are really resorts that saw value in great food and built outstanding culinary programs to support the hotel. Meadowood is the only one so far to have taken it to the extent of earning three stars from Michelin.⁴ But these places, true and worthy destinations as they may be, differ from the ideal that I encountered in Holland, Belgium and northern France on my most recent trip. The scale at these places was small and very, very intimate. These were outstanding restaurants first and quality lodgings to support the restaurants’ guests second. Still, it is encouraging to see that these types of topnotch restaurants with lodging do exist in the United States and Canada. The list may be growing too. I know of at least one more on the way. The Chef Brandon Baltzley is working on a project called TMIP in Michigan City, Indiana, where he and his team plan to open a world class restaurant and farm with its own lodging eventually opening along with it⁵. As far as I’m concerned this is a model that I would very much like to see more of.

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¹Hacienda Benazuza in Seville was a hotel associated with elBulli. One could dine on “best of” dishes from elBulli in their El Alqueria restaurant while staying at the hotel. It, like elBulli, is now closed.

²The Twelve days of Christmas at Meadowood brings some of the finest chefs in the world to cook with Chef Kostow. Read each of Bonjwing Lee’s accounts and check out his always incredible photos to get a sense of how glorious this must be. I haven’t been, but I sure would love to go!

³If you are reading this, you probably don’t need me to tell you how wonderful Chuck’s blog is. He doesn’t post much, but when he does its always a must read. My use of footnotes here is a specific homage to this amazing culinary enthusiast and friend. Willows Inn was on my list of get to places before this post, but Chuck’s post made it shoot up to be one of my most desired restaurant “wish” destinations.

⁴It should be noted that unlike in Europe, Michelin has limited itself in the United States to select geographic areas and has not rated any restaurants in canada or Mexico.

⁵As of the time this was written, the location of the Baltzley TMIP project had not been publicly identified. It is revealed here with the permission of Chef Baltzley.


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One Response to Musings – Where Are The Destination Restaurants of North America?

  1. Interesting topic, no doubt, and while I’ve not had the opportunity to travel abroad as much as you I can definitely say that Willow’s Inn is a destination…even worth the subsequent food poisoning I suffered from an oyster perfectly time correlated with vibrio. That being said, of all the spots you listed I’d caution against Langdon as it is quite overpriced and underwhelming while Ashby Inn is an absolute delight – same with The Herbfarm, even with all the pageantry.

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